Monday, March 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Frank Miller's 300


Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Rated: R for language, violence, nudity and sexual situations

Running time: 2 hours

The tired 'sword & sandals' genre gets a Wachowski Bros-style update that has broken box office records and polarized the movie industry

Status: Now playing in theaters

"300", the CGI-heavy historical epic based on cult legend Frank Miller's graphic novel treatment of a famous Greek battle, is like American Idol, sushi and rap music- you either love it or you hate it.

The only way director Zack Snyder could get Warner to greenlight his effects-heavy, violent, stylized period flick was to make sure he could bring it in on budget, which was set at a paltry (for the genre)$60 million. How did Snyder propose to do what other directors have done with twice as much money to spend? By utilizing readily-available CGI technology for backgrounds and casting unknown actors in starring roles, cutting down on cost, time, and ultimately the bottom line.

The end result? 300 grossed an astonishing $70 million on its opening weekend, a figure that represents the biggest March opening ever and the third biggest opening for an R-rated film in history, trailing only The Passion of the Christ and The Matrix Reloaded; oh yeah, it was also the biggest IMAX debut ever.

So how did a "stupid little CGI movie" as Snyder himself calls it, go on to break records and capture the heartbeat of the American moviegoer, all while alienating critics and stunning industry execs? By taking a familiar story in a familiar genre and turning it on its ear.

The story of the Greek Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is well-known to anyone who has taken a history class or watched The History Channel, not so much for the result of the three-day skirmish, but for how the results affected the future of modern civilization. Three hundred Spartan soldiers, led by King Leonidas, waged war against a massive army of Persian warriors, led by tyrannical King Xerxes. (In reality about 1,000 Greek volunteer soldiers joined the fight, but when you're going up against 200,000+, what's the difference? Besides, 300 sounds better.) Although all the soldiers perished, their struggle to defend Greece united the country, leading to the birth of democracy in the world.

In this retelling of the saga Snyder uses his CGI expertise to bring Miller's (Sin City) visual concepts to life; the only thing real in the film are the actors, but they all do a fine job of eliciting emotion and delivering their memorable one-liners. Scottish actor Gerard Butler (Tomb Raider:Cradle of Life) plays Leonidas with a smug machismo reminiscent of Daniel Craig's 007, and from the beginning we can see why his men are so willing to follow him to battle. Leonidas was born & raised to fight to the death in order to protect his homeland, and he lets everyone around him know they are to do the same.

"Are you staring at my six-pack?"

When the Spartans learn that Xerxes (Santoro, Lost) intends to attack Athens unless the citizens lay down their weapons and bow to Persia's dominance, Leonidas realizes that he will finally get to fulfill his destiny. After drop-kicking Xerxes' messenger into a bottomless pit and uttering the instant tagline "We. Are. SPARTA!", he has a final fling with his Q.I.L.F. of a wife, Queen Gorgo (Headey, The Cave) and takes his 300 finest to the Hot Gates, a bottleneck by the sea that will help to nullify the large Persian contingent.

What follows is a number of battles waged over three days between the Spartans and various forces from Xerxes' military. Each time a division of the Persians attempts to infiltrate the Spartan phalanx, Leonidas and his men shoulder up, cross shields, and inflict great bodily harm on their oncoming attackers. The best part of these conflicts is the poor sap sent to deliver Xerxes' latest message to Leonidas, who always meets an untimely, gruesome demise.

"Lay down your weapons" one such messenger pleads with the Spartans. "Come and get them" is the reply as a ginormous spear hurls through the sky and impales the man on the spot.

It is in these scenes that the film leaves its mark. The combination of muted, murky landscapes and swirling, twirling swordplay creates a combination of Gladiator meets the Matrix, with a little V for Vendetta thrown in as well. Indeed the Wachowski Bros. influence is certainly felt in these parts as blood spurts in slo-mo from severed limbs & heads while soldiers spin and mow down their targets with ballet-like grace; as we count the bodies drop you can almost feel the testosterone levels go up.

Ultimately Leonidas is betrayed by one of his own, a deformed Spartan whom he would not allow to fight with his highly-trained men. The traitor leads Xerxes to a hidden path behind the Hot Gates, and the Persians finally have Leonidas & his men trapped with no escape, left to gleefully face their deaths, all in the name of Sparta.

Is this Thermopylae, or Oz?

It's quite obvious that this film is not intended to be a fact-by-the-numbers historical recount; watch the excellent History Channel doc. if that's what you want to see. I'm sure there were no 8-ft tall, effeminate drag Kings, as Xerxes is portrayed to be, nor mutant rhinos and chained giants ready to be unleashed on unsuspecting enemies. That's the whole point of this version. It's taken from a COMIC BOOK-how real can it be?!

Everyone who is complaining that the film is a sterile, soulless sham needs to take a step back and examine what they are saying. The director made no pretensions about the film and the studio admitted they thought it would take in about $25-30 million in its opening because the director steadfastly stood by his vision of what Frank Miller's painted Spartan world would look like had it come to life on screen, gruesome creatures, sliced heads and all.

But critics are lining up to pan the film, as you can plainly read here, here and especially here, and I for one am not really sure why. Is it because the director & studio admit (refreshingly) that they wanted to use bluescreens instead of throwing money away on lavish sets with no guarantee that the film would turn a profit? Other bloody, bloated epics of this genre have gone the lavish route and ended up getting ripped for being too silly (Alexander), too pretentious (Kingdom of Heaven), and mostly too...un-Gladiator (Troy).

The thing about "300" is that it's exactly what it's creators intended it to be and nothing more: an inventive, fast-paced retelling of a legendary battle that wound up kick-starting a dying genre by appealing to & entertaining a wide demographic.

As the great Maximus himself would say "are you not entertained?"

My answer would be have to be a resounding "yes."

And that's all that matters.

As for all the haters/critics, I have one thing to say to you:

"Enjoy your breakfasts, for tonight you shall dine in HELL!"

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